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Financial infidelity: Why lying about money can ruin your relationship

How does your behavior — or your partner's — stack up?
by Jean Chatzky /
Image: A couple argues on the street
If you're consistently hiding money problems from your partner, there may be a power imbalance in the relationship or you're not on the same page when it comes to finances and your goals. Hybrid Images / Getty Images/Cultura RF
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On Valentine's Day, it's easy to pretend everything is well and good in your relationship. On every other day? Not so much. That's why it's so important to answer questions like these: Have you ever lied to your spouse or partner about how much something cost? How about racking up debt your significant other knows nothing about? Or lending money that's supposed to be both of yours to a friend or relative?

All of these transgressions fall into the broad category of financial infidelity — which encompasses everything from shading the truth to omitting important (but relevant) information to outright lies. They're all bad, experts say, but they're not all equally bad. For example, Matt Lundquist, couples therapist at Tribeca Therapy in New York City, says he'd weight gambling or making a high-stakes investment without your partner's knowledge as four times more serious than, say, buying a new item of clothing but telling your partner it's from the back of your closet. For that reason, we're especially concerned about the 27 percent of respondents to the Financial Shades Of Grey Quiz we posted on The Balance who incurred debts without telling their partner. We're also more worried about the 20 percent who lent money without discussing it first than we are about the 41 percent who lied about how much something cost. (Full disclosure: We've done that, too.)

How does your behavior — or your partner's — stack up? That seems like a pretty good topic to tee up in this week of love. You can take our quiz, of course, or just keep reading to figure out how close to the danger zone you are.

If you’re hiding things like accounts, cards or a significant amount of debt from your partner, the degree of financial dishonesty in your relationship is troubling.

If you feel like an open book when it comes to money…

Congratulations, your result is in the "light grey" zone, like 78 percent of quiz-takers. If you and your partner are pretty transparent about money (i.e. your biggest transgression is taking the tags off a new item of clothing to make it look older or hiding some mad money in your underwear drawer), congratulations are in order. And if you'd like to take your relationship to the next level financially? Try scheduling a money talk over dinner (or wine) about once a month. Talk about the things that you both want your money to do for you (this could look like anything from travel to philanthropy), and look out one year, five years, even 10 years. Focus on being open and honest with each other — and, most of all, listening.

If you’re hiding a few things…

If you've done things like use your partner's cash or credit card without their permission — or kept quiet about how much you have/earn — you're a "hazy grey," like 20 percent of our quiz-takers. Ask yourself (and it's just between you and you, so you can be honest): Why do I feel like I need to keep some things hidden? It could be because you're resentful about something — maybe there's a power imbalance in the relationship or you're not on the same page when it comes to money and your goals. Understand that money may be the symptom, not the problem. “The money is just where it shows up — there’s usually a deeper reason,” says Debbi King, author of “50 Shades of Money.” Address the issue with your partner. But rather than framing it as, “I did this objectively bad thing,” use language like, “I recognize that I’m doing something that’s at odds with the kind of people we’ve agreed to be together,” says Matt Lundquist, a couples therapist at Tribeca Therapy in New York City. Be prepared in case your partner has a stronger (or milder) reaction than you anticipated. Something else to keep in mind? When apologizing, give enough information so they know what you’re apologizing for, but give them the opportunity to decide what they can handle at the time, says Lundquist — e.g., “Are you ready to hear more?” Address your specific worries (for example, fear that you don't have the same long-term savings goals or feeling like one of you has much more financial control), listen to the ones they tee up and brainstorm ways you could both be a little more open and honest. Then, talk about financial obligations coming up in the next couple of weeks or months and how you'll meet them — as well as about long-term money goals. If you can't get yourself to the table, schedule some time with an impartial third party, like a financial planner or therapist, to do it with you.

If you find yourself hiding a lot (like entire accounts, credit cards or your total amount of debt)…

You're in the "charcoal grey" category, like 2 percent of respondents. We’re not going to sugarcoat it. If you’re hiding things like accounts, cards or a significant amount of debt from your partner, the degree of financial dishonesty in your relationship is troubling — particularly because when couples keep these things from each other on a regular basis, it can lead to more trouble (and splits) down the road. Ask yourself why you can't talk to your partner about these things and why you feel you have to hide them. If you're able to come to an honest understanding of why you're acting the way you are through self-reflection or conversations with loved ones — and if you feel that understanding can help you get a handle on the behavior — you could try to work through this on your own, says Lundquist. But if you're having trouble figuring out what's motivating your behavior or want someone to hold you accountable, consider seeking help from a counselor or therapist. Note that if you feel the problem is stemming from things you need to work through on your own, it's a good idea to seek help from an individual therapist — at least at first. Consider bringing a couples therapist or marriage counselor into the mix if you feel there are relationship issues at play (e.g., you’re acting out financially because you’re angry about something your partner did or insecure about income imbalance, says Lundquist).

With Hayden Field

NEXT: Wellness is the new status symbol. Here's how to tap into it on the cheap.

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